Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1308
If Heraclitus had written fiction, it would have resembled the novels and stories of Pierre Gascar, where earth, air, fire, and water, and the vivid creation which they support are no less alive than man himself. Gascar's tales are like those enormous medieval tapestries, where princes and violets are set down with equal clarity, and the prince must share the stage with water, owl's ears, and the webbing of frog's feet…. [In] his stories simplest acts become ancient rites: he sees his own life blessed with the permanence of a myth.
In his collections of stories, Les bêtes, Les femmes, soleils, and his autobiographical writings, La graine and Le meilleur de la vie, good and evil have the taste of water and sun, guilt and hate have the sting of blood and salt. They cannot be separated, for more than an act of language keeps them together. The elements participate directly in the lives of his characters, fuse with their values and surround them with an ethical landscape of their own making. Transformed to a wasteland or a garden, nature mirrors their acts of hate or acts of love, just as an internal conflict, says Gascar, may be triggered or reinforced by a symbol. (pp. 104-05)
With symbols Gascar makes a new language. He never writes of ideas but fuses them with the material world where they were born…. Like Bergson, Gascar believes that when you try to describe your feelings, spreading out in space what occurred in time, you lose the very nuances you want to seize…. Symbols allow Gascar both to order his experience and to avoid the generalities that destroy its vitality. (p. 105)
The syntax of Gascar's experience is concrete things. Le meilleur de la vie contains a curious defense of that syntax. A harnessmaker and a wheelwright engage in a verbal dual to see who can invent the most fantastic images. The result is a strange yoking of things and properties: trumpets of sunshine, snails' boot, and woolen pistols, an inventory from a world of dreams. Each utterance seems to transfigure the dim workshops where they are announced. (p. 106)
Language always buckles when you have to deal with the anarchy of nature….
Threatened with anarchy, man tries to impose his will on nature, by naming it, denying it, possessing it, and killing it. Hunting, says Gascar, is an attempt to arrive at a world where animals have names. (p. 107)
Confronting nature, man confronts his fate as well. Fate is the final power, the man who comes to arrest you, the trapdoor at the end, the stone hat of death. Yet it is also a power carried in ourselves, a power we hardly know until we commit the crime of which we thought we were incapable, so that we look to the gods for an explanation. Gascar's favorite image for fate is the blind man. (p. 109)
Gascar shows man hunting beasts and man hunting man as if he were a beast. In both cases, the possibility of love is destroyed. Fate shines brightest in the lives of the poor or the outcast, and Gascar allies himself with both. (pp. 109-10)
What astonishes the reader in La graine is Gascar's apparent lack of involvement in the deaths he causes and the deaths he witnesses. "Incense, worms, holy water, blood …, never once did I find my hands suspect." Though not admitted, the guilt is there, however…. Over and over, Gascar raises the question: how shall a man free himself of the past events which hold him trapped? "Freedom bears our own name, our own face," he writes, "and … all our attempts to escape the world that oppresses us bring[s] us back to ourselves, to the scrutiny of our own past."
And because the past is always present, every relationship of victim and master conceals an older quarrel, which Gascar describes in "Entre chien et loups." A Polish refugee named Franz has the job of playing victim to dogs being trained for tracking by the military…. Behind the game lies the real issue: authority tries to order and destroy what is irrational and indestructible. When it wears a human face, it is sometimes called anarchy, nihilism, mass individualism. (pp. 110-11)
The heroes of Gascar's novels are victims, for whom exile or war has disrupted the habitual ways of organizing their lives. Their world consists of what their senses tell them is true. Gascar knows the danger of this position from his childhood when a simple change of perspective, a new view of his own landscape could show him suddenly, underlying the familiar, a nameless void. Not surprisingly, his heroes escape from the tedium of ordinary life into a great loneliness. Standing in the abyss that opens when they cease to believe in the value of that life, it seems to them they have always loved strangers. It is like finding yourself in a boat, says Gascar in Le meilleur de la vie under which you feel the whale sigh as you sweep away from the old moorings towards the horizons of nausea. (p. 111)
Gascar's heroes, unwilling to live with questions, too often reach for traditional answers which will free them from the past by imposing a meaning on it. Nothing, says Franz in "Entre chien et loups" is easier for man than to believe.
Perhaps Le fugitif, a novel set at the end of World War II, shows best the range of answers which a man may seize in the name of his own freedom….
The truth Paul seeks is an absolute justice that will give meaning to his suffering. He wants all Germany to be guilty down to the smallest tree, for guilt implies the existence of laws which have been broken. Yet he knows the trees are not guilty, they are part of an order of things that is timeless…. The war has only disturbed the surface of the forest where he hid…. (p. 112)
What Paul asks of the new truth is that it shall come like an apocalypse bringing a value to life quite apart from the ordinary flux of human existence: a new reality, risen out of the fire and death of war….
Though his characters occasionally take death for an answer, Gascar does not. The narrator in "Le temps de mort" discovers the true revelation of death when, digging a grave in a prison camp, he discovers several corpses hideously decayed: death is man's surrender at the end of a blind alley….
If Gascar envies the dead anything, it is their freedom. After the accident in which Paul is presumed to have died, he loses his legal and social identity and becomes no one. Now he has the freedom of a dead man who returns to the earth desiring only to watch the spectacle of life and to understand it. (p. 113)
By losing his life, Paul finds it. For the past is not something we carry after us, though its existence depends on ours. "Those who leave us and those who die are joined to us by a steadfast though invisible flame, a reminder that reveals a presence."…
When a man is at home in the living flux which cares nothing for him, then the elements reveal themselves as symbols through his most insignificant experiences. As a child, sitting in the wine cellar of his neighbor's house, Gascar celebrates mass with the earth…. The tasks of harvesting become the worship of corn, whose shape recalls the secret power it serves…. Gascar's truth can be touched and eaten. It is the spiritual bread of a communion that springs from his joyous affirmation of the material world where everything passes and nothing is forgotten. (p. 114)
Nancy Willard, "The Grammar of Water, The Syntax of Fire," in Chicago Review (reprinted by permission of Chicago Review; copyright © 1971 by Chicago Review), Vol. 22, Nos. 2 and 3, 1971, pp. 104-18.
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